Crossing the world to find yourself: How to use traveling as a tool for personal growth
In the Tortuga Boluuda hostel in Léon, Nicaragua, I was examining a Land Rover Defender parked outside when an English gentleman arrived on the scene. It turned out that he and his wife were on a two year long car trip around the world that had already taken them through the whole Asia and was now taking them through America from north to south. I saw the opportunity and immediately asked what such a long trip had learned them about good living. The most important lesson was clear: Traveling changes your worldview, whether you want it or not. They had experienced it themselves and everyone they had met who had done a similar trip told the same. Are you prepared to change? Would you like to use traveling as a tool for your personal growth?
The gentleman explained that by living in your home country you learn to look at the world through the lenses provided by that culture. The people around you condition you to look at the world in a certain way. You acquire the feeling that certain forms of behavior are normal and acceptable while certain others are not. This is what changes when you travel long enough. You become aware of other ways to look and evaluate the world around you. As a mundane example the gentleman told how in Kazakhstan the public toilets lacked doors:
So there he was, sitting in the toilet with his pants down when a local farmer with a donkey passed by. The Englishman looked at the farmer, the farmer looked back at him, and he felt that this was totally normal. Back in Britain the same scene would have felt extremely embarrassing.
To use traveling as a tool for your internal growth three conditions have to be met:
Firstly, any deeper change of worldview requires time. A week or two is not enough because you carry your cultural package wherever you go. Only through time you learn to gradually look beyond it in interpreting the behavior of others. This is why everyone should at least once in their life live amongst a culture that is not their own. One doesn’t have to take such a ambitious trip that spans all continents to achieve that, it is enough to stay put in some other country preferably a bit further away from home. More important than the location is time, the longer you stay the deeper insight you achieve about the new culture – and through that of your own culture.
Secondly, one needs some courage, the gentleman told. When you step outside your worldview and examine it critically you simultaneously step outside of your comfort zone. It can be quite a painful experience to learn that something you have believed in and based your life decisions on isn’t so certain after all. Abandoning your deeply-held beliefs is hard. To achieve that you have to have enough strength of character. Otherwise you easily fall into a defensive state where you blind yourself from seeing what could be detrimental in your current worldview and furiously defend it against all differing ways of living.
Thirdly, you need to expose yourself to the real life of the country you are in. It is perfectly possible to travel around the world without leaving the comforts of western living behind. One can take sunbaths in a gated resort on the coast of Tansania feeling lucky that the realities of the poor life of the local people is out of sight. But this kind of disneyland-traveling doesn’t learn you anything. What you need to do is to step outside the tourist traps and encounter the local way of living. Visit their homes, walk around in their farms, eat with them. Only in meetings with ordinary people does genuine cultural exchange occur.
The gentleman told also another perhaps even more revealing example of how important the skill to interpret situations from the perspective of the other is. This time the scene took place in Honduras:
The couple had camped in the jungle near a village where indigenous Mizkito people lived in very rural conditions. Driven by curiosity the local kids had come to look at them and befriended them. The couple was eating and the kids asked for food so they gave a little food for the kids. Next day the kids who again had come to play around with them asked for some cooking oil. They even suggested that they can wash the car and get some oil as a reward. The couple running low on the cooking oil told that they can’t give it to them. Later they noticed how someone had stolen the oil bottle. When one of the kids returned the man told him how disappointed he was. Embarrassed the kid returned the empty bottle and said that the oil went to his mom.
From the western point of view the situation is clear: The kids stole the oil and stealing is morally wrong. End of story. From the local, more collective perspective where ownership is not such a holy cow the situation is more complicated. In these kinds of cultures it is regarded as common place that those who have share with those who haven’t. Even though the couple from their own perspective was running low on food and had a tight budget ($20 per day which is already quite little), compared to the kids they were extremely wealthy. From the perspective of the village people the car alone confirmed that. They might have felt it unjustifiable that the couple was not willing to share even a little bit of oil with them. So they took the justice in their own hands.
Hearing this story was a learning point for me. If I would have been in their situation I most probably wouldn’t have been able to look at the crime from this perspective. And most probably if this had happened during one of the first days of their trip the gentleman wouldn’t have had the widened perspective either to look at the matter from this angle. But after more than a full year of travel and contact with different indigenous people he had already learned a thing or two about their worldviews. The long nights spent at small villages in Ukraine, Mongolia, Guatemala and other countries along the way had paid off.
But be warned, the internal growth comes with a price. It might be surprising to learn that the hardest part of a long-term trip is going back home. It is quite understandable, however, given the changes you have gone through. You are a different person, most probably enlightened in many ways compared to your old self. And there you are, back home where nothing has changed: Your friends are the same, your work and colleagues are the same, the society and everything is the same. How are you able to cope? There seems to be a place carved for you by your old self but somewhat you feel that you don’t fit into it anymore.
Two issues in particular worried the gentleman. Firstly he felt that in some ways his views about the upsides and downsides of modern western societies had changed. And he was afraid that his old friends and colleagues would not understand his changed viewpoints. Secondly, he had been a quite successful leadership consultant before their trip. But given all he had experienced and all the ways in which his attitudes and values had changed during the trip he wasn’t sure that he simply could jump back in that career.
They still had a long way to go – through the South America, cross the Atlantic, and through the Africa – but sooner or later he would have to take issues with what way of living he could commit himself to in the future. What kind of place could he find in the society that had been his home throughout his life but that he had to learned to look from a new angle because of their trip?
By exposing yourself to different people with different world-views you run the risk of changing yourself, your values and your way of living – sometimes even radically. That is called evolution of thinking, it is personal growth. But are you ready for that?
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